Sports GOATs: aging like fine wine
I remember watching Sampras playing against Agassi in the US Open final in 2002. Ranked 17th and performing poorly, Sampras entered the tournament as an underdog. Sampras ended up beating Agassi and clinched his 14th grand slam title. Despite his victory, Sampras didn’t step on a court again, and retired aged 32. Back then, retiring in the early 30s was the norm for athletes.
Last weekend Rafa Nadal won his 21st grand slam at age 35, Rafa is still ranked 5th in the world, and despite injuries and his grueling tennis style, he’s not done with tennis yet. Just like Sampras, he was the underdog entering the tournament and won.
Some might say that Rafa is just a freak of nature. But the truth is, that over the last 15 years, we’ve seen more athletes retiring later, and many still performing at their highest level in their mid/late 30s. So, what’s making it possible for athletes to stretch their careers and redefine what “peak age” in sports means?
Novak Djokovic is ranked number 1 on the ATP tour. He’s almost 35 and playing his best tennis ever. The Serb will tell you that his secret to success is a mixed bag, with plant-based nutrition being a key element to recovery, on-court alertness, and performance. He made it clear after being pulled to be executive producer alongside with the likes of Lewis Hamilton in the Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) documentary “The Game Changers”. Hamilton, considered one of the greatest drivers in F1 history, just turned 37 and last year was probably the best year of his career.
The plant-based lifestyle might not be the secret for everyone. In other physically taxing sports such as basketball, American football, or soccer, hyperbaric and cryotherapy chambers have been incorporated in the athlete’s routine to stay in tip-top shape. Ask Lebron James, who at age 37 is having another incredible season in the NBA, or Cristiano Ronaldo, who at 36, looks at times more like a model than a soccer player. He’s a well-known napper, and the last Euro cup made it clear that water, not Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), is his drink of choice.
Tom Brady, who at 44 announced his retirement earlier this week, still gave incredible stats in his last NFL season. Brady has been open about using “floats” for muscle recovery, mental health, and alertness. Like Tom Brady, other elite athletes also highlight that good sleep and rest are essential to high performance. A Stanford study found that sleep and rest separate the greats from the good ones.
However, others think that eating better, resting better, and training smarter might have nothing to do with peak performance and why NBA players Tim Duncan and Vince Carter retired in their 40s. For others, it might just be genes. Dr. Stuart Kim from Stanford University has been trying to find links between DNA markers and athletes’ proneness to suffer injuries and ability to recover. However, the results are still inconclusive.
We know there is an overlap between sports and psychology. Efforts are underway to develop neurotechnology to enhance athletes’ training and performance. New companies have emerged, investing in tools for cognitive training and alertness. Companies like Halo Sport created a neurostimulation device that helps develop “muscle memory” faster. Sports Academy is also breaking into the field. In the not too distant future, we might see athletes incorporating Brain-Computer Interfaces, or BCI, to improve sleep, mental health, and performance. Biogen Inc (NASDAQ: BIIB), is exploring the field of neuroscience and technology not just to prevent diseases but improve the health of individuals.
Advances in technology, sports nutrition, a better understanding of sleep, rest and the intersection between sports and psychology have contributed to athletes staying longer in their fields, and with that, leaving legendary, almost unreachable marks. Newcomers are facing a wall when facing the veterans of sports in their attempts to make a name of their own. Maybe they have to learn a thing or two, not just about high-level training and longevity habits, but the inner drive that takes to become a GOAT.